How to Apply the Torah of Freedom

by Glen Penton

God's wonderful Torah, which He gave to His People Israel about 34 centuries ago when He brought us out of slavery in Egypt, has 613 regulations in it, some of them pretty complex. Many of these regulations presupposed a Jewish culture in the Land of Israel under godly Jewish leadership with the Temple standing. Some of the commandments, when taken out of their original historical and cultural context, could become burdensome and unloving, not at all the original intent of the Divine Author of the Torah.

Torah Application for Non-Jews

First, it seems important to keep in mind that God has never been a racist, but has always adopted into His Jewish Family all who sincerely turned to Him from among the nations of the world, with or without formal conversion to the Jewish religion. Gentiles, like Jews, can be reborn into right relationship with the God of Israel through His Messiah.

If Torah were some painful punishment that God inflicts on those who are Jewish by natural birth, then love would require that Jews not share it with anyone, but bear it themselves, as stoically as possible. Some people treat it that way.

On the other hand, if Torah is a gracious gift from God to His children, we ought to share it that way, in the context of love and joy, and not hatefully or selfishly withhold it.

Torah Application for the Twenty-first Century

When God walked the Land of Israel in the person of Yeshua, He gave inspired and authoritative interpretations of Torah. So did the prophets before Him and the shelichim (apostles) after Him. The sheliach Sha'ul is especially important among these inspired interpreters for a good understanding of how to apply Torah today. Rav Sha'ul wrote a lot about how to apply Torah outside the Land of Israel, to people of non-Jewish ethnic and cultural background, living in a non-Jewish cultural context, far from any authorized judge-interpreters. Because that situation is extreme, compared to the situations of most of the biblical writers, we get useful insights about how to apply Torah under extreme conditions. We get insight, for example, about what Torah regulations are to be applied inflexibly (e.g., laws about murder, theft, sex sin, etc.) and which ones are subject to various applicability (e.g., kashrut, Shabbat, etc.). We get warnings about various possible misuses of Torah (often lumped together under the heading of "legalism", but I count seven distinct types of legalism that God warns us against). He makes the Torah cross-cultural and thus more user-friendly.

The Holy Spirit through Rav Sha'ul seems to have made a distinction between the provisions of Torah which God wants everyone to obey regardless of the circumstances (for example, most of the 10 commandments), and the provisions that may not be applicable to everyone's life situation (such as sacrifices, circumcision, and the holidays), about which we need to give our brothers and sisters considerable freedom within the context of a general loyalty to God, to Torah, and to each other. Such a distinction was not needed when the Holy Spirit wrote Leviticus, but was essential when He penned (for example) Galatians and Colossians.

Maybe a good text to consider on this question is at Colossians 2:16: "So no human has the right to be your judge on the subject of what [you may or may not] eat or drink, or however [you may or may not observe] a holiday, a new moon, or Shabbat."

This is a profoundly disturbing verse to legalists. The straightforward meaning of the verse is that if a person is led by the Spirit Who gave the Torah, he or she need not submit to other people's opinions on how to apply its symbolic details. The entire Torah is eternally true and eternally to be obeyed by all. But only the Judge may rule on how precisely it applies to the life situation of a given individual at a given moment. At one time He delegated some of that judgment authority to the apostles. Their decrees and responsa, as we have them in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures, are still binding. But He does not seem to have delegated much of it since then.

For a simple example of what I'm talking about, suppose that some slave in ancient Antioch were to say to his master, "I have now been liberated by the Jewish God and His Messiah. So I can't work any more on Saturdays or Jewish holidays. I hope you won't mind." I can guarantee you that slave would be excused from working the following Shabbat, because he would have undergone death by crucifixion before then. But would that scenario really have honored God or been a blessing to people?

Or for another example, should a believer in Yeshua tell non-Jewish family members, "I can't eat with you any more, because I must keep kosher now."? Does that honor one's parents or express God's love to those around us? What about a believer who is circumstantially able to keep many of the Torah regulations? Is that one more blessed by God, more loved by God, superior to, or earning more of God's favor, than a believer whose social and economic situation allows less freedom? The Renewed Covenant Scriptures, and especially Rav Sha'ul's letters, teach us how to apply God's eternal Torah of love and freedom to such issues.

Yeshua gave the shelichim much authority to decide matters of Torah application. Since the New Covenant Scriptures have been completed and the original twelve shlichim are no longer available for consultation, the individual believer seems to be the authority, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to apply the Scriptures to his or her situation, with appropriate input from such sources as parents, one's spouse, the government, fellow-believers, and other wise people as God may provide.

In practical terms, there really is no "typical" situation for believers who love God and want to obey Him. Each one of us has his or her own personal family situation, rate of growth, social and economic situation, depth of insight, legal status, calling, etc. So far as I can tell from Scripture, the Holy Spirit is the only Judge Who can infallibly apply God's Torah to specific cases today.

So we all need to do our best to learn, understand, and teach "the whole counsel of God", then let the Holy Spirit apply it to each one's personal situation.

Torah Application and World Evangelism

Orthodox Jews in the Galut (i.e., the diaspora, away from the Land of Israel), without benefit of Rav Sha'ul's interpretations, often have presented an image of God as inflexible and irrelevant. Sometimes Christianity without Torah has made God seem shallow and mutable. Torah-observant Messianic Judaism now stands at the threshold of giving the world a wonderful new experience of God as both righteous and wise, both holy and loving, both eternal and imminent, with both integrity and flexibility. Oh how I pray that we will successfully listen to the Holy Spirit and not blow this historic opportunity!

How can we do it? By living in harmony with the Torah and its Author. By love, joy, shalom, patience, kindness, using these mitzvot to do good for people rather than making them feel guilty or neglected, faith in the Holy Spirit to use His Word to correct errors and teach truth through us, gentleness, and self-control(Galatians 5:22-23). It'll work every time. People eat what is delicious rather than what's bitter or sour. They do rituals that are meaningful and comforting to them, rather than the irrelevant and guilt-producing ones. They hang out with those who make them feel good rather than those who put them down. They memorize songs they like, not theological textbooks. See what I mean?

How does the Holy Spirit want to use you to attract people to His wonderful Torah today?


the seven kinds of legalism
more about general theological presuppositions
more theology of including non-Jewish believers
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Galatians 5:22-23, "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control."

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